Why it is time to start a women's IPL

A lot is happening for women's cricket at this point

An Indian rubbing shoulders with an Australian in the same team. Ricky Ponting and Tendulkar exchanging notes in the same dugout, Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds referring to each other as 'mates'. For any ardent sports lover who has stopped watching cricket after the millennium, this would be pretty incredible. He might even dismiss these facts as truth claims made by a deranged fanatic.

But that's what the IPL has given us - competition of the highest order with the greatest superstars rubbing shoulders. It would be fair to say that the IPL has changed cricket -- the way we think about the sport and play the game on any given day. Its success is the single big reason for the popularity of T20 cricket and the mushrooming of franchise-based leagues all around the world.

For the last few years now, the IPL has been setting an example for the other leagues to follow. But such a high-profile tournament cannot afford to relish in self-complacency and stagnation: if it wants to continue showing the way, it must necessarily evolve.

Also read: Cricket Australia gives landmark pay rise to women players

The next big evolution - and a much needed one - that it should seriously consider is to have an IPL for women cricketers. At a time when women's cricket is gaining visibility like never before and women superstars have been vocal in demand for an IPL, this is no longer a proposition that can be dismissed nonchalantly.

Strong demand for a women's IPL

The demand for a women's IPL is steadily on the rise. Jhulan Goswami has already said that she thinks it would be the next big step for the IPL to take. And not just Goswami, the captains of the women's teams of the three cricketing powerhouses - India, England and Australia - have all spoken out for the need of an IPL for women.

Indian women's cricket team captain Mithali Raj said that she was greatly optimistic of such a possibility in the near future. "The T20 World Cup will be important in popularising the game. If we do well in it, it will definitely give birth to the women's IPL," she said speaking at a press conference in Mumbai ahead of the T20 World Cup.

"It's not a bad idea. Every second person asks me when the IPL will have a women's edition. I hope it's sooner rather than later. If you'd asked me this question three or four years back, I wouldn't have known.

"But this is an ideal time to promote women's cricket through the IPL because people are aware of it. A lot is happening for women's cricket at this point, with the contract system in place."

The women's team captains of England and Australia, Charlotte Edwards and Meg Lanning, also echoed her sentiments. "We've seen women's Big Bash kick off to a good success in Australia. There's Super League in England as well. If there was an IPL for women here to be started, it will take the game forward and players will love to be involved in," Lanning said.

Hurdles in the way

The demand for a women's IPL is steadily on the rise

Despite the strong demand, no assurances have been received from the BCCI or the IPL committee that the idea of an IPL for women is being considered seriously as of now. The main obstacle to having a women's IPL would be to strike the kind of advertising and sponsorship deals that men's cricket enjoys.

It is of course well known that the IPL is an advertiser's dream. Crazy amounts of money are spent because of the high margins of profits that are generated in the first place. With no assurance of a high degree of viewership in women's cricket, it is unlikely to attract the same kind of interest from the advertisers.

But it does not end there, it is in fact, a vicious cycle. Meagre investment means meagre return. One just needs to compare the quality of broadcasting that the IPL enjoys with any domestic cricket tournament in India. With no fancy camera angles, spider cams, zing bails and most importantly a mostly empty stadium, domestic tournaments cannot even be compared to the IPL in scale and proportion.

One has to admit that it is the cloud of noise and excitement that surrounds cricket, from constant pre-match coverages by journalists to the grandiosity brought about by television broadcasting and sponsorship, that makes cricket what it is today.

It is these external forces that control the beautiful game, it is these outside factors that have made cricketers superstars and brought them virtually into our drawing-rooms. Any form of cricket that does not witness that kind of investment will lag behind in viewership and interest. That is where the women's game begins to suffer.

But since it is a vicious cycle, we, the viewers, are as much to blame. We come to watch the game we love with strong pre-conceived notions - notions that have taught us to believe that women can never be good cricketers because of biological differences. Or perhaps as good as men.

It is therefore not surprising that a leading cricketer like Shahid Afridi when asked about the development of women's cricket in the country, replies proudly, "Our women are good cooks." It is therefore, a fact that women presenters and anchors have to put up with flirtation and nonchalant sexism all along.

In a society where the idea of trophy wives is still prevalent among certain circles, it is not strange that the presence of women is considered to be necessary just to beautify the game. Our ideas about women and cricket sadly do not go beyond beautiful presenters and hot cheerleaders.

Our clouded judgements will not let us see that Meg Lanning's square drives were as good to watch as Virat Kohli's in the World T20 2016. Instead, what is important for us is that she is pretty - it is her looks and not her square drives that sadly become the defining criterion. Casual propositions have even been thrown around that women cricketers should dress up better and apply some make-up to attract more viewership.

From cutting down on the number of Tests to drawing in the boundary ropes, the game of cricket is governed by parochial beliefs that women are never strong enough to meet the physically demanding nature of the game. If women's cricket ever received the kind of investment that men's cricket did, the viewership and attraction would be sure to follow.

The way forward

That is where the IPL has to lead the way and coax investors to come forward. Some positive steps have been taken with holding ICC tournaments for women being organised simultaneously with men. Franchise-based T20 cricket has to be the next step as this is the most lucrative format that drives the game now.

The inaugural edition of the Women's Big Bash League was a runaway success enjoying unprecedented viewership and quelling the myth that women's cricket is uninteresting. The WBBL attracted a peak in-house crowd of 14,611 and a peak audience of 439,000 television viewers. Cricket Australia played its part having subsidised the production costs and Network 10 and Channel 9 in turn, promoted the coverage on their main channels.

The WBBL made the Meg Lannings and Ellyse Perrys household names alongside Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting in Australia. Players like Lisa Sthalekar came out of retirement. The remuneration was handsome with players earning as much as US$40,000 for their services. The WBBL which was hailed as a watershed moment in the history of the game, in fact, had better television ratings than a few established male sports.

The best women cricketers of this generation have expressed hope and optimism that IPL will follow in the footsteps of the WBBL. "We would really like to see an IPL and even Indian players playing in the Super League and WBBL. It will be great for our game. You have seen what IPL has done for the men's game, it will be fantastic for women's cricket if it happens," said England women's team captain Charlotte Edwards.

Expressing her love for the shortest format of the game, Lanning said, "It creates a great atmosphere and people want to watch it. T20 has been the vehicle of women's cricket for the last few years. We love playing Tests when we get a chance and we love playing more. There's no doubt T20 is the way forward for the women's game."

One of the most enduring images from the World T20 2016 was the West Indies women cricketers celebrating with the men after the final. Curtly Ambrose held up three fingers in celebration acknowledging the contribution of the youth and women's teams. It was indeed a beautiful moment.

The situation is changing fast and cricket boards the world over are waking up to the injustice that has been perpetrated on women cricketers for so long. For far too long, women have been at the periphery of this exclusively masculinist space, adorning the egos of male cricketers as beautiful WAGs and presenters. Now it's time for them to be acknowledged for their own superlative performances. They now want to be at the centre of the praise and adulation with a cricket bat and a ball in their hands.

To be in denial of the abilities of women cricketers any longer will be a grave mistake. History will not forgive such a faux pas. And the IPL can choose to ignore these developments at its own peril.

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Edited by Staff Editor